The first GW

George Washington by Horatio Greenoug, Photo by Claire Houck, Creative Commons licensed

Riding in the car the other day, I tuned in a segment on the radio that amounted to #1 a hagriography of George Washington, #2 an argument that he was a little-”o” orthodox and devout Christian, and #3 a lamentation that GW was written out of modern textbooks (and when mentioned his religion is given a revisionist treatment). It was from the author of George Washington’s Sacred Fire, Dr. Peter Lillback.

On point one… while remaining cognizant that hagriography isn’t proper history, I enjoyed this aspect of the segment. I like a good hagriography, and there’s hardly a better subject for it than the father of our country. King George is said to have remarked on George Washington’s plan to take a voluntary term limit and pass the presidency along democratically chosen lines that “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Considering that GW could have easily chosen to keep the position for life (and set an anti-democratic precedent), his decision to hand over power really does put him in a very good light. This and a number of forward-thinking actions make it difficult to think of GW as anything but great.

The second point was also interesting. It was very partisan (as one would expect on Moody radio), offering evidence for GW’s orthodoxy and devotion uncritically, while glossing over a number of sticky points. I believe that this is one of those cases where the center between two extremes really has a lot to recommend it as being closer to the truth. The evidence presented does in fact rule out the notion that GW was a partisan Deist, hostile toward orthodox Christianity. But, the evidence not presented does soften the notion that he was a devout and partisan orthodox Christian who opposed the spirit of separation of church and state as understood by Madison, Adams, and Jefferson. Nor was he hostile to orthodox religion in the mold of Thomas Paine. He might best be understood as a Christian Deist in the mold of Matthew Tindal – but there is plenty of room for debate and Orthodox Christianity is certainly within the realm of possibility.

The third point was mainly polemic. What Moody calls “historical revisionism” is probably a result of secular partisans playing up the evidence against Washington’s orthodoxy, and even of responsible historians treating the issue as difficult and contentious – denying the view that Washington was clearly and certainly orthodox. On the other hand I had to agree that the state of modern education, and the common disinterest in George Washington and the other founders is regrettable in the extreme. Should educators renew their interest in Washington, I hope they will present his whole life fairly and historically, even the unfortunate bits. And, I hope they will portray modern understanding of his religious views with the nuance responsibility requires.

I recommend the Wikipedia article on GW’s religion – at least as it currently stands. It includes a large segment on Lillback’s book, and helps see how the issue can be clouded by seemingly contradictory evidence.

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